Documentaries about fan cultures tend to stem from the same impulses that give rise to their subjects — which is to say, they celebrate more than they analyze, rarely questioning the marketing forces behind the groups in question. From “Star Trek” fandom overview “Trekkies” to “We Are Wizards,” which gives the same treatment to Harry Potter acolytes, these movies survey the sheer power of super fans to wrestle control of the products they love — but rarely address how they’re inadvertently providing free promotional duties. But since the fans don’t ask the hard questions, why should the documentaries about them?
It’s no surprise, then, that “Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary” has many of the ingredients of a glorified infomercial, particularly given the keen timing of its film festival premiere just a few months after the release of mega-hit “The Lego Movie.” But directors Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson at least manage to cast a broad enough net to put the great big celebration in context: Legos are hotter than ever, and this new documentary effectively tells you why.
While owing much to the authorized perspective of various LEGO staffers from the company’s headquarters in Denmark, “Beyond the Brick” spends much of its running time explaining how sophisticated Lego users around the globe — who refer to themselves with the catchy acronym AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego) — singlehandedly resurrected the bricks’ appeal. The movie’s tone is a little too self-satisfied from the outset, mainly due to the use of an animated Lego character as the documentary’s narrator, voiced by Jason Bateman. But beyond this cheeky framing device, “Beyond the Brick” offers a satisfactory overview of genuine innovation.
The directors, both of whom have extensive awards to their names (Junge won an Oscar for his documentary “Saving Face,” and Davidson was nominated for the short “Open Heart”) expertly navigate a dense terrain of Lego usage that looks beyond its roots as a toy to explore how Legos have grown more ubiquitous than ever before — even as the company struggled to remain relevant as recently as a decade ago, when its simplified designs alienated longtime fans and left newbies nonplussed.
It’s this early admission by the builders themselves that allows the documentary to shed its promotional exterior and dig deeper into the broader spectrum of Lego usage that has kept the brand active enough to allow for its second wave of popularity. Lego artists and designers who use the tools in new ways have been wisely embraced by the company. As one master builder puts it, “99% of this world is smarter than us.”
That ceding of authority to a terrain liberated from marketplace concerns makes “Beyond the Brick” far more intellectually satisfying than “The Lego Movie,” which, for all its relentless quirkiness, still concluded by restricting the value of the bricks to the toy box. The documentarians, by contrast, see beyond it: Early on, they include the theories of a Danish mathematician, who estimates that there are over 9 million possible configurations from the original patented six bricks alone; with so many more pieces around now, the building process has blossomed into an endless network of possibilities — and so too has the Lego community.
Using a conventional blend of talking heads and footage of Lego studios large and small, “Beyond the Brick” swiftly juggles a half dozen mini-profiles of Lego users, most of whom identify with the product’s creative possibilities. These include many “Lego filmmakers” engaged in stop motion projects, including New York-based Lego animator David Pickett, who had a viral production sampled in the new studio movie. Working on a more abstract plain, Berlin-based artist Jan Vormann engages in the fascinating process of “lego bombing” historical landmarks as a means of commenting on their significance. But no subject does a better job of illustrating the bricks’ substantial value than the psychiatrist who has used the bricks to treat autistic children. While “Beyond the Brick” certainly pats the company on the back for the value of its product, it does so with plenty of empirical evidence.
Sequences focused on the company’s own efforts, such as the attempt to create a life-size X-wing star fighter for a presentation in Times Square, hold less interest. It’s here that the corporate agenda of the project comes into view. There are no Lego naysayers in the movie. Does such a thing exist? Certainly the bigger picture has been restricted by the context of the production. With the animated Bateman-voiced Lego guiding our journey, there’s no escaping its materialistic qualities.
“Beyond the Brick” never entirely loses the feeling of a commercial, but it’s hard to disagree with its message: In an age of innovation, Legos match the eagerness to build things in new ways and find likeminded inventors along the way. With the constant pileup of brick builders, this point is driven home from countless angles. As a mode of invention, they were ahead of their time — and perfectly suited for this one.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With the range of fans for the movie illustrated by its content, “Beyond the Brick” is likely to find a major buyer with a history of releasing documentaries widely and faces healthy commercial prospects.